The Sand County Foundation

At the time of his death in 1948, Aldo Leopold was known as the leader in the profession of wildlife management in America. He began his career as one of the first graduates from Yale’s new graduate school of forestry. Jobs in the fledgling U.S. Forest Service guided Leopold until 1928, when he quit to work full-time in the new field of game management, first as a private consultant and writer. During the next two decades, Aldo Leopold would become one of the leading conservationists in the world, integrating ethics, economics and conservation.1

Reed Coleman, current chairman of the Sand County Foundation, and his family, grew up as family friends of the Leopolds. He and his brother Tom recall the Leopold Land Ethic taught to them by Aldo and their father as "a sound, voluntary environmentalism that depends on private ownership and stewardship."2 It is this legacy of private stewardship and conservation which Mr. Coleman and the Sand County Foundation attempt to continue today.

The Leopold Land Ethic

In 1935, Aldo Leopold bought an abandoned 120-acre sand farm in south central Wisconsin. Just north of Baraboo, Wisconsin, the farm is located where the Wisconsin River and its floodplain cut across the ground moraine from the last ice sheet. Then a University of Wisconsin professor, Leopold spent the weekends there with his family, wondering at the beauty of everything around him in the tradition of Thoreau and Muir. Upon Leopold’s purchase the land was eroding, weed-strewn, and supporting little wildlife. Almost immediately, Leopold’s family sought to enhance the nature under their stewardship with the sweat of their brow and the diligent labor of their hands. It was during these years that Leopold composed many of the essays which were assembled in his classic work A Sand County Almanac. Eventually, Leopold’s writings would become an inspiration for much of the conservation movement.

One of Leopold’s well-documented beliefs was in the limitations of government. He was critical of the public for relying too heavily on government intervention. He accused the public of escaping its responsibility to get involved directly in trying to influence land decisions by hiding behind "bureaus, laws, and programs." Leopold argued government couldn’t change the behavior of millions of landowners or move them towards responsible land husbandry, "the heart of conservation."3

Leopold knew the key to saving nature was not government commands and controls, but proper incentives brought about by private landownership. In 1933, he wrote, "Most of what needs doing must be done by the farmer himself. There is no conceivable way by which the general public can legislate crabapples, or grape tangles, or plum thickets to grow up on these barren fencerows, roadsides and slopes, nor will the resolutions or prayers of the city change the depth of next winter’s snow nor cause cornshocks to left in the fields to feed the birds. All the non-farming public can do is to provide information and build incentives on which farmers may act."4 According to Aldo Leopold, private efforts would take care of the environment, not public ones.

The Sand County Foundation and it’s Mission

Today, the Leopold sand farm no longer has the able hands of Aldo to care for it. Around his place stands the Sand County Foundation and the four other private landowners who have voluntarily come together to protect the ambience of the Leopold land and to create a living memorial to the legacy of Leopold. This private, non-profit organization continues the work of Leopold by promoting "sound conservation practices on the land through management, education, and research."5

In September of 1965, Reed Coleman, Howard Mead, and Frank Terbilcox formed The Sand County Foundation with private funds, mainly from their own pockets and lots of volunteer effort. Coleman’s father and Aldo Leopold had been good friends. In an article in Philanthropy, Coleman discusses his boyhood days fishing and hunting with his father and "Uncle Aldo" and the long talks on conservation which took place during the hunt.6

Today, a volunteer board and full-time staff of three run the foundation. Seventy percent of the Sand County Foundation’s annual budget of approximately $500,000 comes from private foundations. Another five percent comes from individual contributions, and the remaining twenty-five percent is from investments, farm-land rentals, and other miscellaneous sources. It receives only minimal funding from the government from USDA farm programs – in particular, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Market Transition Act (AMTA). In addition to the full-time staff of three, the Foundation has two part-timers and gets the rest of its help from volunteers or contracting when needed. Most of the Foundation’s annual budget goes directly into their programs. An industrial corporation in Madison provides office space to help contain overhead expenses.

The Foundation’s original purpose was to preserve the Aldo Leopold Shack property, where Leopold did his writing and research. The Foundation’s founders feared encroachment by lot development along the Wisconsin River, and so they went out and convinced landowners of various types in the area to refrain from using their land in certain ways, and to allow the foundation to do research and restoration in order to conserve the land as an integral unit. Thus, the Aldo Leopold Memorial Reserve was created. In return, the Foundation agreed to pay the landowner’s property taxes with funding from private donations. Coleman points out that this was before the use of conservation easements had been put into wide use.7 (The founding actually occurred in the same year as the Federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 which, through availability of funding, provided a significant jolt to the passage of conservation easement statutes in each of the fifty states.)8

The Foundation’s management has grown from caretaker of the 120-acre Leopold sand farm’s surroundings to steward of 1,500 acres known as the Leopold Memorial Reserve. The Reserve still contains the Leopold family sand farm and shack, a building included in the Register of National Historical Landmarks.9 The original sand farm on the Leopold property was probably used for corn and wheat before Leopold took it over; however, the only farming on the Reserve now is in a few fields (Bradley, Terbilcox, and Van Hoosen’s fields) used for income or restoration site preparation purposes. Revenue from farming is approximately $20,000 annually. No farming occurs on the Leopold fields themselves.

In addition to the shack and farm, the Reserve has adapted the remaining area to landscape scale experimental management units. In these units, the Foundation restores the area’s natural processes in a controlled manner and monitors the effects over the long term. This provides essential research in an area heavily used for conservation education. Savannas, woodlands, marshes, floodplains, forests, and riverbanks are all different land units under study by the Sand County Foundation. There is also the Aldo Leopold Foundation, which is a separate entity from the Sand County Foundation. It’s focus is similar to the Sand County Foundation with emphasis on land acquisition and restoration, educational programs for children and adults, research in land management, and dissemination of Aldo Leopold’s works and philosophy. Management of the surroundings for the historic sand farm is far from the sole purpose of the Sand County Foundation. Its goals have expanded greatly since the founding in 1965. The Foundation’s formal mission statement of "extending the ‘land ethic’ to improve private landowner stewardship of land using good science" can be broken down into a three Basic Elements:

  • First, the Sand County Foundation strives to increase private land owner participation in improving and preserving natural habitats and environmental quality through education, good science and land management planning. A large portion of the Foundation’s work is to help heal sick land. They do the work of "stopping the bleeding" and sending the land on to recovery. Through the concept of "adaptive management," landowners are encouraged to monitor, manage, learn through the process and outcome, adjust management, and then monitor again. The Foundation works very hard to advance this concept among private and public land owners and agencies. Private land owners who visit the Leopold Reserve get their hands dirty in learning the Foundation’s practical approach to ecological restoration. They help out with the prescribed burns to protect the oak savanna, pick and sack prairie seeds for prairie restoration, and survey tracts to remove weedy plants on both the Reserve’s land and on land where they have agreements with landowners. All of the Foundation’s projects are first tested rigorously using sound scientific methods or good science as they call it. The environmental education doesn’t stop there. The Sand County Foundation has arranged for primary schools to come visit as well as carrying on conservation "working tours" for corporate leaders.10
  • Second, the Sand County Foundation attempts to provide practical advice on using nature’s ecological forces to improve the health of the land community. In other words, the Foundation comes up with solutions to environmental problems which use nature to fix the problem instead of artificial man-made devices. For instance, instead of building expensive dams and levees to reduce or stop flooding downstream, the Foundation advocates rebuilding the original flood plains with voluntary agreements from the landowners to create a healthy watershed where rains are absorbed and runoff slowly. This reduces the chances of catastrophic flooding and reduces the levels of nitrates and manure in the water. Instead of preventing wild fires, the Foundation strives to increase the safety of the oak savanna habitat through controlled burning. Controlled burning reduces the risk of uncontrolled wild fires and protects the savanna by leaving the open areas needed for low-lying plant growth.
  • Third, The Sand County Foundation advocates the teachings of Aldo Leopold and his Land Ethic as the primary influence on all environmental decision-making. Over the past five years, the Foundation has run a number of Executive Seminars in major cities across the United States. Each seminar brings in nationally recognized environmental scientists, economists, and even philosophers. The goal of the seminars is to motivate landowners and funding groups to use the Leopold Land Ethic in their land management and environmental funding decisions. The seminars tend to include between 15 and 20 participants and the topics range from "Reducing the Costs of Too Many Deer" to a "Modern Guide to Environmental Philanthropy."

 Habitat Management

As previously mentioned, maintaining the Leopold Shack surroundings is no longer the only purpose of the Sand County Foundation. In accordance with their mission of providing practical advice for land planning and use of nature’s forces to improve the health of the land community, the Foundation has explored and established a number of habitat management programs to solve real environmental problems. At present, restoration of the oak savanna helps provide habitat for endangered or potentially threatened species while the Wisconsin River Flood Plain restoration provides filtering of pollution from the river. These two programs in combination with the Sand County Foundation’s "Earn-Your-Buck" program exemplify their current efforts to develop and enact "trend setting" programs which maintain good science and economic reality as their bedrock.

 The Oak Savanna

The Sand County Foundation began its Oak Savanna Ecosystem Restoration and Management program in 1993. The oak savanna habitat is the most endangered type of ecological community in the Midwest United States, with less than two percent of its original area existing today. The Foundation hopes to save the remaining two- percent and to add to it through research, education, and restoration of an estimated 100,000 acres of both private and public oak savanna habitat in Wisconsin and Illinois. When the Foundation’s restoration program began in earnest, a lack of wildfires had left only a few hundred acres of oak savanna in the whole state of Wisconsin. Today, there are several thousand acres of quality savanna, in large part due to the Foundation’s work.

Much of the flora and fauna in the area, including the oak savanna habitat, historically relied on wild fires to clear overgrowth. Due to modern development, prevention of the wildfires that ravaged the savanna became the norm. Without fires, trees and shrubs invade the open spaces of the savanna, shading out the grasses and other low-lying plants upon which many forms of wildlife depend. This has led to the decline of savanna land and the species native to its habitat.

The Sand County Foundation’s research includes analyzing the savanna’s response to different management techniques and setting up a research and monitoring protocol. The management techniques involve selective logging to remove the danger of a controlled burn escalating into a wild fire dangerous to neighboring development. Controlled burns are also used to imitate the wild fires which used to rage across the Midwest. This clears the overgrowth, allowing for the native plants of the savanna to survive.

The Foundation coordinates the efforts of different landowners throughout Wisconsin to save the savanna through fire management and timber cutting techniques. Participating landowners enjoy a decline in their own catastrophic wild fire risk due to fuel buildup in tightly knit forests. Selective logging of these forests reduces wildfire risk and the proceeds from sales of the cut timber provide funding for management costs. Noel Cutright, an ecologist with Wisconsin Electric Power (WEP), feels the experience that the Sand County Foundation has with coordinating both private and public landowners is an asset to WEP’s own efforts to meet its commitment to environmental stewardship. It’s the Foundation’s reputation on past projects and synergy with WEP which encourages Cutright and WEP to work with the Foundation.11

In restoring and expanding natural habitat, the Foundation’s Oak Savanna program protects a number of species from becoming threatened or extinct. Several species associated with the oak savanna habitat have been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, including the phlox moth, eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Blanding’s turtle, loggerhead shrike, and prairie flame flower.12

Perhaps, first and foremost amongst the oak savanna’s endangered native wildlife is the Karner blue butterfly. The butterfly was listed as an endangered species in December of 1992. Its only known food source while in caterpillar form is a plant called wild lupine, which grows in the sunny open setting of oak savannas.13 A 1980 New York study of 37 sites revealed an average of two lupine plants are required to support every Karner blue butterfly caterpillar.14 Without the work of the Sand County Foundation to restore the oak savanna, the Karner blue butterfly would find itself in even greater danger of extinction.

 The Wisconsin River Flood Plain

A second major program of the Sand County Foundation is the Wisconsin River Flood Plain Restoration and Management Project. Over the past century, levees have been built along the Wisconsin River to protect areas from flooding in order to increase land availability. Unfortunately, these levees, while decreasing flooding in general, have increased the potential for disastrous flooding. They have also led to increased pollution of the water by removing an important filtering process.

In order to reduce the likelihood of a disastrous flood downstream, the project will eventually remove unsafe levees and allow re-flooding of the historical flood plain which ranged for dozens of square miles near the Leopold "shack." A Sand County Foundation meeting in November of 1996 reported: "Studies of the 1993 Midwest U.S.A. floods universally establish that levee removal lowers flood crest height and slows flood water velocity."15 However, the plan to return to natural flooding does a lot more than simply ensuring the safety of downstream Portage, Wisconsin and its residents.

Native fish communities benefit from the natural solution. Wildlife production, especially the production of waterfowl, is improved. And native vegetation in the area prospers. A lot of these benefits simply come from the cleaner water provided by natural flood plain management. Brent Haglund, the president of the Sand County Foundation writes that two of the worst pollutants for damaging a flowing river’s ability to support thriving biotic communities are nitrates and manure. By allowing river water to flow over wetlands or floodplains, Haglund argues much of the nitrates can be broken down into harmless nitrogen gas. In other words, the floodplains act as a nitrogen trap. Manure can be broken down similarly. The light and extensive oxygen exposure the waste receives when settling out on floodplains act as a catalyst for the bacteria which decomposes manure. According to Haglund, "When floodwaters recede, manure materials would be gone."16

Best of all, the restoration of the flood plain not only provides better results, it comes at a lower price tag. Through voluntary agreements with landowners, the Sand County Foundation can use the natural ecological processes of the flood plain to solve the aforementioned problems instead of the capital intensive and expensive man-made solutions of levees and dams. As the Foundation puts it, "nature and time at lower cost versus man in a hurry, with mechanical means, at a higher cost."17


A third program demonstrating the Sand County Foundation’s success is their Quality Hunting Ecology program which began in 1991. The program was developed to voluntarily counter a deer overpopulation problem in Wisconsin and the entirety of the Great Lakes Region and beyond since deer numbers began to escalate at the turn of the century.

Protections given to deer earlier in the century, the elimination of the species’ natural predators, and hunting and forestry practices have all contributed to deer overpopulation. A number of problems arise from Wisconsin’s growing deer population. The deer overgraze shrubs and understory, removing precious protective cover, nesting areas, and food sources from small mammals and birds. Oak tree growth is curbed as deer nibble on seedlings. Continual feeding prevents the regeneration of trees. Even plant diversity is lost as certain plans are browsed to extinction in an area.18

Besides the number of environmental harms, there are also direct financial costs from excess deer populations, primarily due to motor accidents. Deer-vehicle collisions are on the rise and taking an incredible toll. The Sand County Foundation advisor estimates from a survey of state officials that 726,000 reported deer-vehicle collisions occurred in the United States in 1994. Yet this is only the reported number of collisions. The Foundation‘s advisor goes on to estimate that the total number of deer-vehicle collisions may actually be double the number of reported claims. With a $1,500 per car average, the cost of deer-vehicle collisions would then be as high as $1.1 billion in 1994 alone. This doesn’t include the cost of the approximately 29,000 injuries or 211 fatalities which occur in any given year from deer-vehicle collisions.19

The Quality Hunting Ecology program strives to bring the deer population back under control through a gradual lowering of the overall deer population in conjunction with raising the density of males amongst adult deer. In order to achieve this goal, the Sand County Foundation instituted a hunter incentive system called, "Earn-Your-Buck." Under the program, hunters earn landowner permission to kill a buck after they have taken two antlerless deer (preferably does). The hunters are also encouraged to only kill a buck if it is their largest ever. The program is run "on-top-of" state game regulations. In other words, hunters must first meet the state government requirements in licensing and permitting. Then, they must meet the "Earn-Your-Buck" participation and permitting requirements.

The Foundation encouraged the landowners to join the project by making clear the economic and ethical benefits to lowering deer numbers and improving habitat. Mainly, the decreased costs of damage to property convinced the landowners, but increasingly forest land owners are concerned with meeting sustainability targets as well. Convincing the landowners that the Sand County Foundation could deliver the cooperation of the wildlife agency and the scientific rigor in monitoring were also important to gaining landowner support.

The program has been successful in two ways thus far. First of all, the program has improved the ratio of males to females in the adult population. With a lower number of females in the deer population, there are fewer deer born every year, which helps to reduce the population. Secondly, the program has bettered hunter awareness of the necessities for a good deer habitat. In the program’s first year, the ratio of antlerless to antlered deer changed directions from less than one to greater than four. At the same time, the total number of deer killed doubled.20 The ratio of antlerless to antlered (adult bucks) went from about 6:1 or 7:1 in 1989-90 to between 2:1 and 1:1 after the first three years of the program. Thus, the Foundation reduced the number of antlerless deer in proportion to the total herd.

Currently, the Foundation is in the process of expanding their current base of private and industrial lands for the program by adding an additional 150,000 acres of timber company and agricultural land holdings in Wisconsin and Michigan. The landowners gain by the reduction in damage to their property from the burdensome deer population. The hunters gain by receiving a higher quality yield of buck. One hunter who visited the Reserve wrote, "Its very nice to see the fruits of deer management program paying off. We saw a beautiful 10-12 point buck as we were walking through some brush. That made the whole day in the rain well worth it."21

A third group has also found benefits from the foundation’s "Earn-Your-Buck" program. Due to the high costs of the deer population in the form of automobile accidents, the auto insurance industry has become very interested and involved in the Sand County Foundation’s work. Funding from the industry has helped to further research and spread the information to validate the program’s results in the hopes that government might learn a lesson from the foundation. The insurance industry is delighted with the results Sand County provides them. Ernie Stetenfield of the American Automobile Association Wisconsin had the following to say about the foundation’s Executive Seminar, "Reducing Costs of Too Many Deer", "I found the event meticulously well-organized and the information very pertinent to my interests, and those of my organization, in the topic of deer overpopulation."22 Perhaps even more convincing is Tommy Thompson, Governor of the State of Wisconsin’s praise for the foundation’s educational seminars. "The Sand County Foundation seminar brings together some of the best minds on effective cost control of deer populations."23

You can bet if the automobile insurers are benefiting from Sand County’s work with the deer population, their customers also benefit in lower premiums and a lower risk of hazardous deer-vehicle collisions.

The Leopold Land Ethic Today

The Sand County Foundation clearly realizes environmental work cannot be successful by simply relying on government to protect our ecological heritage on public land or by allowing the government to enforce its will on private land. Successful conservation provides landowners with incentives to take care of their property on their own. To create such incentives, government cannot forcefully take away private property rights. Such an anti-solution leaves landowners wondering when the hard work and investment in their land will simply be taken from them. Once again, it is Aldo Leopold who summed up the difference between incentive plans and government enforcement programs best. Mr. Leopold wrote, "We tried to get conservation by buying land, by subsidizing desirable land changes in land use, and by passing restrictive laws. The last method largely failed; the other two have produced some small samples of success."24 The private solutions often work, while the public ones often fail.

The Foundation keeps the Leopold land ethic alive today. Instead of requiring the landowner to give up his land, the Sand County Foundation enters into voluntary agreements with landowners, which make the true stewards of the land better off. This, in turn, makes the land better off. The Foundation’s "trend setting" research shows how different land management alternatives can benefit the ecological community. It focuses on providing ways to heal the land, and teaching not only the healing methods it pioneers, but also educating landowners in the scientific method used to come up with the solution. In teaching landowners how the problem was solved, the Sand County Foundation gives the stewards the tools to heal land on their own. And by educating the landowners through their seminars and hands-on programs, The Sand County Foundation moves their "trend setting" research into "trend setting" practice.

In Sand County, Wisconsin they still understand the teachings of Professor Leopold. When it comes down to a government solution versus a private one, the old adage still applies: if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Perhaps, that’s why when the president of the Sand County Foundation, Brent Haglund, was asked about government’s effectiveness to preserve wildlife habitat, he responded, "You know what I like? A deed in the courthouse."25

This case study was written by J. Bishop Grewell, a research associate with the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. The author wishes to thank Brenda Jessen at the Sand County Foundation for providing valuable information. He also wishes to thank Brent Haglund and Kevin McAleese of the Sand County Foundation for their comments. J. Bishop Grewell received his Bachelor's Degree in Economics and Public Policy from Stanford University.

Private tours of Aldo Leopold’s "Shack" can be arranged with Buddy Huffaker at the Aldo Leopold Foundation (608-356-8952). To pre-arrange a visit to the Reserve, one can contact Kevin McAleese of the Sand County Foundation (608-242-5237).

The Center for Private Conservation is supported by the William H. Donner Foundation.


1Susan Flader, "Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of a Land Ethic," Aldo Leopold: The Man and His Legacy, Thomas Tanner, editor, (Soil Conservation Society of America, 1987). 2Reed Coleman, "Growing with the Leopold Land Ethic," Philanthropy, Volume 6, Number 1, 1992, p. 5 3Dennis J. Palmini, "The Conservation Economics of Aldo Leopold," Wisconsin Academic Review, Summer 1993, pp. 43-44. 4Dennis T. Avery, "Aldo Leopold’s Message to Environmentalists," Global Food Quarterly, Fall 1996. 5The Sand County Foundation Brochure. 6Coleman, p. 6. 7Reed Coleman, "The Land Ethic in Modern Times," Philanthropy, Volume 8, Number 4, Fall 1994, p. 19. 8Steven J. Eagle, "Conservation Easements and Private Land Stewardship," Center for Private Conservation, March 1998, p. 6. 9Lucy Krogness, "Selling Conservation through Sand County Foundation," The University of Minnesota Duluth Bridge, October 1990. 10Terry Anderson and Don Leal, Enviro-Capitalists: Doing Good While Doing Well, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 50. 11Telephone Conversation with Noel Cutright, April 9, 1998 12Richard King, "Life in the Oak Barrens," Endangered Species Bulletin, Volume 11, Number 1, January/February 1996. 13Region 3 Endangered Species News, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 14Jonathan Tolman, "The Karner Blue Butterfly," Center for Private Conservation Case Study, February 1996. 15Brent Haglund, "Not-So-Round River: Group Meets on Flood Plain Evaluation," The Sand County Foundation Newsletter, Winter 1997, p. 2. 16Brent Haglund, "Solution to Water Pollution Clean-up," The Sand County Foundation Newsletter, Winter 1997, p. 3. 17Telefax transmittal from Sand County Foundation, September 1994. 18Rebecca Christoffel, "Deer and Plants – Sworn Enemies?!" The Sand County Foundation Newsletter, Summer 1996, p. 7. 19Michael Conover, "Taking the Risk Out of Deer," The Sand County Foundation Newsletter, Winter 1997, p. 3. 20Kevin McAleese, "And Advance of Ethics: Quality Hunting Ecology Changes Attitudes," The Sand County Foundation Newsletter, Summer 1996, p. 8. 21Ibid. 22Executive Seminar Brochure: Reducing Costs of Too Many Deer, The Sand County Foundation. 23Ibid. 24Anderson and Leal, p. 49. 25Anderson and Leal, p. 52.